Our ability to internalize a manipulated world

Psychedelic music
Over on Notional Slurry, Bill Tozier (who’s one of the many cool people I get to talk to here at GECCO) uses a funky anomoly in a Google map image to raise a very interesting question:

Google Book Search will become a stunning addition to the armamentarium, but is full of first drafts of scanned books: full of errors and missing pages.

Will we all go through Google Book Search and replace those missing and damaged digitized pages, or will we adapt to their lack by simply calling it good enough?

Way back in the pre-dawn of history (i.e., when I was an undergrad and we still copied LPs onto cassette tape), I made a copy of a friend’s (“Hi Jean!”) LP of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Unfortunately my cassette was a hair (2 minutes at most) shorter than the music, so my copy was missing those last few bars.

About three years later I was studying math in Budapest, and a bunch of us went to a (wonderful) performance of Four seasons. After many minutes of thoroughly enjoying the experience, all of a sudden something just felt wrong, and shortly after that the piece ended. As everyone stood and applauded, I figured out what the “problem” was: In my head, the piece was supposed to have ended a minute or two earlier! I’d listened to that tape enough that I’d internalized a finish that I intellectually knew was not the actually ending. The live performance then became “wrong” or “broken” when the orchestra didn’t abruptly cease playing at the point where (in my head) the tape ran out. (Imagine the chaos and confusion in the hall if they had!)

As a much more significant example, consider the errors and modifications (often unintentional, but no less serious as a result) introduced in the millenia of hand copied texts, including such politically and culturally powerful documents as the bible. Here we have mistakes and changes becoming internalized to the point of becoming church policy, cultural norms, and sometimes even civil law!

So obviously we can adapt all too well to errors and manipulation, and these things can become the new “truth” all too easily. It would thus seem crucial that we be vigilant in looking for these errors (especially in potentially powerful repositories like Google Books) and expect (even demand!) that these things be fixed when they’re brought to the attention of Google (or Amazon or libraries or …). This is one place where a public resource like Wikipedia has an advantage over a private resource like Google Books: If I see an error in a Wikipedia entry, I can fix it myself without having to rely on someone else to actually make the change for me.

After all this carping, though, it’s worth returning to the title of Bill’s post: “Bill in Escherland”. Much great art is great in significant part because it breaks and reassembles your conception of art, information, and the world. While I would hardly call my copy of Four Seasons art, the effect it had on me is quite similar in many ways to how sampling and remixes can help/force us to perceive ideas in a new way. Viva la Escher!

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2 thoughts on “Our ability to internalize a manipulated world”

  1. Hope you are enjoying your visit to the left coast. I’ll make a ceremonial wave on my way from Eugene to Bellingham this weekend.

    Sorry to hear about the second cat loss. Our four legged family members are often noticed most when they are no longer with us.

  2. I did indeed have an excellent time. It was good being there, but it’s good being home. It’s been weird not seeing Portia after I returned, though. In the summer she’s been out a lot, so you often notice her absence from the house. Then I go outside, and there’s a subconscious part of me that’s expecting her to come out from under a shrub letting me know what her day’s been like, and it just seems wrong when it doesn’t happen.

    Thanks for the kind thoughts!

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